Despite parade, Poles turn to bread-and-butter issues

It was a hot, sunny holiday, and most of Warsaw had gone to the country, but a colorful crowd turned out on Victory Square to watch the parade of units of all branches of the armed forces for the 37th anniversary of the foundation of this communist regime.

After the fierce debates during last week's Communist Party congress, which did an astonishing face lifting of the party leadership, the whole exercise was almost anticlimactic.

Life seemed quickly to have gone back to the Polish "normal," focusing on the bread-and-butter issues that brought about this long and still unresolved crisis.

The official Polish news agency indicated as much in a report Thursday that introduction of the new wholesale and retail price structure is imminent. Price rises have been the most dangerous reef in the country's postwar history: Earlier Polish governments have crashed on them.

The agency was quoting Zdzislaw Krasinski, head of the state pricing commission. His comment was candid though understated, considering past public reactions:

"Painfully aware that several cabinets have fallen over attempts to change an antiquated price structure, the government will be submitting the package [of price rises] to public discussion, especially with labor unions, in a few weeks' time."

The new leadership was signaling its resolution to grasp "this nettle danger" and to prepare Poles for even more austerity.

Even if proposals -- which would raise prices on some items fourfold -- are modified, the going will be tough. A provisional price list shows milk going from just under 3 zlotys to 21 (about 60 cents) a liter, butter from 25 to 80 a quarter-kilo, sugar from 10.50 to 40 a kilo, and ham from 180 to 450. A family's food bill will double at least.

In a country where the average monthly wage is about 6,000 zlotys ($150) and an enormous number of people live on 2,000 to 3,000 it is a frightening proposition.

At present, at least 30 out of every 100 people in a queue go home unsatisfied. Without swift, radical action. Professor Krasinski says, the figure could be 1 in 2 by year's end.

It remains to be seen whether the increases can be imposed in one fell swoop, as hard-line economists urge. It may have to be done in stages.

Meat rationing -- which the government hoped would be the answer -- is not working. It is not unusual to meet someone with a ration card scarcely touched for several weeks because no meat for coupons is available.

There is plenty on the free market. But more than half the population simply cannot afford it. Profiteering is rife.

If the party congress sent any clear message, it is that Poland does not have much time. The new leadership stressed the need for action. Logic brings the country and its needs right back to the economic square one and the urgency of stimulating industry and getting exports rolling.

Mercifully, both dockworkers at the Baltic ports and state airline employees decided to suspend their strike calls. Their decisions may have been due to the hopeful mood arising from the party housecleaning and the election of people from industry and the countryside to the Central Committee and the hitherto holy of holies, the Politburo.

Those with production or professional posts will stay at them and commute to Warsaw for major party meetings.

This involves a risk that the permanent seven-man secretariat at party headquarters could arrogate much decisionmaking to themselves. But the new party charter has strong safeguards, and the debates suggest the rank and file intend their representatives to stay in touch with the shop floor.

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